Katara peeked slowly around the heavy, Fire Nation, library doors. Like just about everything in the royal palace, the library followed the same predictable color scheme of red, gold, and brown.
But, instead of growing weary of it, Katara found herself becoming fond of this place. Sure… the war had only officially ended about three months ago, and she had only stayed in the Fire Nation for the last week or so, but it was rapidly becoming home to her – unlike the random campsites that she, Aang, Toph, Sokka, and Suki had been staying at for the last twelve weeks or so.
Recalling herself back to the present, Katara carefully shut the door behind her and moved cautiously towards the bookshelves. For some reason, she felt almost as though she were walking on eggshells. Idiot! she thought to herself. Why am I acting this way? Sure… this may be the first time in thousands of years that anyone who wasn't Fire Nation had been allowed in this library…
Shaking her head over her silliness, she knew that she wasn't doing much to help her nervousness subside.
Expelling her breath in an effort to bring about a state of calm, Katara then began scanning the spines of the books on the nearest shelf. As she pulled out a book on the history of bending, she noticed an aged scroll lying deeper in the recesses of the shelf like a forgotten promise, hidden in the depths of someone's memory.
Pulling it out meticulously, Katara sat down with it on a nearby armchair. Pulling it open, the water-bender began to read:
The Tale of the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady
Long ago, when the Fire Nation, the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads had been as one people, there was a lovely young woman who lived in a village near a river.
One morning, she came across a young man's body when she went down to the river to wash her family's laundry.
The youth had washed ashore with the currents of the river and had barely escaped drowning. Finding him in a state of unconsciousness, the kind-hearted maiden bent near him and reassured herself that he yet lived.
After several minutes of staring, the lady was brought back to reality by the appearance of her brother. She quickly told him to seek the help from some of the village-men so that the nearly drowned man could be brought to their home to recover.
Later, when the mysterious man awoke near midnight, he discovered his rescuer asleep in a chair next to his bed. Tired, he closed his eyes with a sense of comfort that he had not had since the moment that he was exiled from his village by his brother.
In the next few weeks, the maiden and the youth spent most of their time together – laughing, talking, and enjoying themselves as the stranger was shown the surrounding landscapes by his guide.
The maiden's family looked on in concern. They realized that the time would come when the strange wanderer would leave their fishing village, and they did not want to see their sister/daughter undergo the pain of the parting – especially since the bond between the two concerned seemed to grow daily.
The girl's family had come to a decision.
When the maiden and the stranger came back to the village in the evening, they were told that a marriage had been arranged between her and a childhood friend who, while dear to her, was not someone that she felt that she could love… as a woman loves a man.
Someone else had already filled that void in her heart…
That evening, the maiden went to the spot by the river where she had first discovered the man she loved. Gazing out at the river, she began to cry. To her surprise, embarrassment, and relief, the young man came to her and held her to his chest as she sobbed over her fate.
When her tears ceased, the two confessed their love, and while the reassurance of the other's feelings brought a sense of comfort, the problem of her imminent marriage still loomed over their heads.
Hesitantly, he offered her the chance to leave her village with him. To elope. To share a life with him. To share his life of exile. To wander the world.
The maiden was heartbroken. She was torn between the desire of being with the one she loved and the longing to remain with her family and friends. After many long moments of thought, tears began coursing down her cheeks. She could not imagine betraying the people she cared for.
Sadly, she tried to explain that she could not leave her village in such a manner. "It would break the hearts of the people that raised and loved me from the moment I had entered this world," she softly explained.
His head bowed with sadness, he left her – to once again wander the wide world.
In the months that followed, the maiden steadfastly prepared for her wedding while attempting to conceal from her village the fact that she was nursing a broken heart.
On the day of her wedding, the maiden carefully stood before her mirror as she applied the red and white bridal paint, and then, she half-heartedly placed the straw hat and veil upon her head.
She was ready to be married.
However, she felt a stab of pain as she took a last look at herself in the mirror. Like many other young women, she had dreamt of this moment her entire life. But… she had always hoped to marry the one she loved.
Leading the bridal procession, the maiden made her way to the village's shrine.
Still about fifty yards from the shrine, the lady raised her mournful eyes from the ground to look ahead at her groom. She cared for him… but not enough. Before she had regained control of her tangled emotions, a single tear made its way down her cheek, coursing its way through the paint that hid her despair.
As she reached the shrine, a man appeared, dressed all in black with a blue mask covering his face. Drawing his two swords on her groom and the priest, he motioned for her to come with him. Walking in the direction he had indicated, she became aloof as the masked man rejoined her.
"I couldn't let you be married without me," her lover remarked behind the mask.
Overjoyed, the maiden embraced him and smiled, as she had not, since the day he had left.
The two of them walked slowly to the spot where they had last parted - the place where they had first met.
They talked. They soon came to the same conclusion. The maiden felt that she could not leave her village. The young man could not stay in one place, nor could they travel to his homeland. But, their love remained strong.
In the distance, they heard the villagers approaching. Through the trees, the lights of their torches gleamed bright and reflected menacingly off of the weapons that each man carried.
When the village-men came to the spot in which the lovers had been conversing, they gazed in the water in shock and awe.
Floating in the river were the maiden and the wanderer, still in a lover's embrace.
The two were buried together, and since their love was so strong, they became powerful spirits.
The maiden had become the Painted Lady.
Her spirit guards, guides, and protects the people who reside in her village. She controls the river, which in turn, controls the fragile lives of the fisher-folk she cared for in her lifetime.
Her lover became known by many names, like the Wanderer or the Banished One, but his most common name came to be the Blue Spirit, because of the blue mask he wore when he interrupted the wedding.
It is said that he wanders the world still yet always manages to return home to the Painted Lady…
Moved by the beauty and sadness of the tale, Katara continued stare at the scroll, no longer registering the words on the parchment.
Still lost in a world of thought, the water-bender didn't realize that the new fire-lord had entered the room until he called out her name.
Jumping nervously in the chair, Katara turned around to see Zuko reading the scroll over her shoulder. "How long have you been doing that?" she asked playfully.
"Long enough," the fire-bender replied. Looking up, he added, "I just finished reading it now, if that helps." Katara carefully answered with a shake of her head. "Anyhow," Zuko continued, "everyone is waiting on us to eat dinner." After a moment of thought, he added, "Aang says that he has a special announcement to make."
Zuko's intense amber eyes stared questioningly at Katara. For some inexplicable reason, she found herself blushing uncomfortably beneath his gaze.
Something had changed between the two of them.
Barely two weeks after the war ended, Zuko and Mai had broken up, though the newly-crowned fire-lord had never fully explained the cause…
As for Katara and Aang… after the third, awkward, wet kiss they shared, Katara realized that it wouldn't work out. Not one of the kisses made her feel passionate – unless you count passionately disgusted. For Katara, kissing Aang had been like kissing a little brother, but for some reason, she had kept thinking that it would change.
Katara had broken the news to Aang about a month ago while they were traveling around, helping people recover from the war – you know, the whole "Avatar thing." He had been upset, but the blue-eyed water-bender had noticed that he was learning to accept her feelings – or lack thereof. That… and Aang seemed to be seeking out Toph's company more often these days…
"You know, Katara," Zuko remarked, offhand, "I use to disguise myself as the Blue Spirit…"
Shocked, Katara stared at him as her face paled. "Was it fate? Meant to be? These feelings are still so new to me!" Katara thought frantically.
"What's the matter?" Zuko asked, concerned. Leaning over her, he placed his hand on her forehead, checking her temperature against his own. Feeling his warm hand on her face caused a tingling sensation to occur all over Katara's body. His mere touch had accomplished something within her that Aang's kisses could never achieve.
"You feel a bit cold…?" Zuko remarked, pulling at straws.
"I think that it's natural for fire-benders to have hotter bodies than…" the water-bender began until she realized her mistake. "I mean! Hotter body temperatures!" Katara amended, panicked, as Zuko let loose a very un-Zuko-like chuckle.
Since his hand was still resting on her forehead, Katara took the rare chance to breath in his spicy, match-like scent. Realizing that he hadn't yet unhanded her, he mumbled an apology as he gently pulled his lingering hand away from her face.
"I use to disguise myself as the Painted Lady," Katara said, looking away and laying the scroll down on the small table nearby.
Now it was Zuko's turn to stare, aghast. Making a snap decision, Zuko reached down and took her chilly hands in his warm ones. "Come on," he said huskily as he lifted her to her feet. "Let's go have dinner…" As an afterthought, he smilingly added, "We can talk more about our alter-egos later."
Not relinquishing one of Katara's hands, Zuko led her out of the library towards the informal dining room.
As they approached the closed door, Katara glanced quickly at their locked hands with a faint blush on her cheeks and a far-off smile on her lips.
Opening the door simultaneously, they walked in to greet their friends – their grip still strong.
Disclaimer: DO NOT OWN AVATAR! DO NOT WANT TO OWN AVATAR (would rather own Zuko)!
Me Using Fanfic Terms That I Just Learned:
I must say this. I happen to think that Zutara is an OTP (one true pairing). I could explain in detail why, but it is past midnight on the weekend – in other words – thinking straight can be a bit difficult for me. Maybe another time.
Yes. This does have UST (unresolved sexual tension) in it, but you know… I wouldn't have it any other way…
I do hope that this story relates as fluff. If comes across as such, please send a thought of accomplishment my way so I can give myself a metaphorical pat on the back.
Note 2 Readers: I happen to be an unabashed fluffy fanfic fan (try saying that five times fast!)! If you don't approve of my love for fluff… I don't care – it's just too darn sweet! However, if you are a fan of fluff, just know that I am sending you an invisible thumbs-up as you read this. By the way, if you just lost all respect for me after the whole "thumbs-up thing," then I apologize for my utter cheesiness – but then – can you blame me? It's practically one in the morning! GAAHHHH!!!!